As a young democracy, we have yet to figure out where we stand regarding freedom of expression.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had an interesting conversation with David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker. Before joining The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1992, Remnick was the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. That made me ask him about freedom of expression in Russia, which, like India, is a comparatively young democracy. Would the Rushdie affair, unfolding in Jaipur at the time, take place in Russia? He smiled and told me that it probably would not. In Russia they do not suppress novels, he said, because they think no one reads them.
Three days after our conversation, the Rushdie affair became even more absurd with the author's videoconference being cancelled moments before it was due to begin. A few days later, a group of hardliners tried to prevent the release of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen's new book in Kolkata. The resulting hoopla caused the book to sell out in days. By the same token, the tamasha in Jaipur ensured that several readers who wouldn't normally give The Satanic Verses a thought are now more curious than ever about the book.
Efforts to silence books and authors normally end up making sure that they are widely read. What happened to Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen proved no exception to that rule. Surely the hardliners, irrespective of the group they represent, know that as well as anyone. Whatever else they may be, the one thing they are not is stupid. They would not continue to survive and prosper if they were.
Then why do they target books and authors? Or for that matter, painters and filmmakers?
For the simple reason that it is the easiest way to ensure a big headline. The Rushdie affair brought the Deoband establishment and their cohorts the kind of publicity that no money can buy. They received yards of newsprint and several hours of television coverage. Such saturation coverage ensured the ruling Congress party developed cold feet just before the U.P. elections and did exactly what the Deoband establishment desired. Somehow, they contrived to make sure that Rushdie was kept away from Jaipur. The Taslima Nasreen episode got plenty of media attention in Kolkata, even though it did not play that prominently on the national and international stage. That is because Rushdie and the Jaipur Literature Festival are far better known round the world.
Such episodes are indicative of how difficult it can be to be a serious creative person in a young democracy. Serious art of any kind is inherently critical and often reveals a side of society that most people prefer not to see. Moreover, in recent times, art has felt the need to be irreverent to the point of being provocative. With all kinds of media clamouring for the audience's attention, many artists believe they need to go over the top to be noticed. In that endeavour, they can transgress social norms in ways that not only challenge tolerance, but also open the artist to attack from parties feeling hurt or threatened.
Democracies are supposed to provide for such situations by drawing up constitutions designed to protect civil liberties. In a young democracy, however, civil liberties are constantly in the same position as the sacrificial lamb. A young democracy tends to be a society that is constantly anxious about its moorings. Hence, civil liberties, even if enshrined in the constitution, are cast aside in a bid to keep the peace. In the Indian scenario, the situation is further muddied by the unholy mix of religion, caste, and politics, as a result of which the politicians view the electorate in terms of vote banks.
When the issue of suppressing art by interested parties is raised in India, parallels are drawn between the Indian democracy and the democracies of the West. The Rushdie affair inevitably prompted comparison with Britain, since Rushdie is a British citizen. That the British government protected Rushdie during the fatwa was mentioned, and the question why our government wasn't that supportive was asked.
The prime reason why the British government did what it did was because the freedom of expression is supported by the Briton on the street, which the politicians in Westminster know very well. The Emergency notwithstanding, the Indian on the street is not half as concerned or educated about the ramifications of losing civil liberties. Furthermore, given our conformist culture, he or she is more apt to blame the author for writing a book that provokes the ire of so many people than, say, those hunting him or her. Until this situation changes, civil liberties will remain under the cosh in India, and we will continue to see replays of what went on in Jaipur and Kolkata.